If you ask ten people what they think the greatest discovery of pre-history is, chances are nine of ten will say fire.
But the discovery that fascinates me the most is the discovery of the link between sex and pregnancy.
Think about it – it’s a difficult deduction to make. The ‘outward’ signs of pregnancy don’t start until a few weeks from the date of intercourse. And I imagine that in a number of cases, there must have been a lot of activity happening between the moment of conception and the moment when the pregnancy became obvious. So – who was that genius who first made the connection between a fleeting incident that happened in the dark several months ago, and the baby that was born?
Until recently, this was just a nagging question at the back of my mind which I would blurt out an inappropriate moments of drunkenness at large parties, and immediately get weird looks from the rest of the crowd. But recently, I found that there was actually serious research that was being done to answer this question. And it’s very interesting, really.
When I pondered the question, there were two possible ways in which I thought this discovery may have been made. The first possibility was that old people, who had seen several children being born (or who had several children) may have made the correlation. But this seemed unlikely, given that the sexual act back in the day was probably not endowed with the ceremony that precedes it today. So there was most likely no ‘comparing of notes’ between old women and a discovery suddenly made.
I think the second possibility is more likely – that mankind knew for sure that sex equals babies when people started the practice of keeping domesticated animals. The gestation cycle for many animals is much smaller than it is for humans. I figure, the first big discovery was the discovery that a man is needed for pregnancy. The next big discovery was that sexual intercourse is needed. And it was possibly much later that the actual mathematics of it – the gestation period – was discovered.
That’s an interesting hypothesis, because it means that the discovery was made only after the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry. That would put it in the early neolithic – about 10,000 years back. Which is comparatively recent, by archaeological standards. Also interesting is the fact that there is a major difference between human and animal reproduction, namely the lack of ‘estrus’. I came to know this interesting word from my buddy Joe, who wanted me to build a machine for him that would detect when a cow would go into heat – or technically, enter estrus – so that she could be inseminated during that small window. Human females don’t (I think) enter heat – most domesticated animals do. So it took a level of abstraction for the early thinkers to discard the complication of estrus before realizing that in the case of humans, it’s much simpler.
For some reason, intuition tells me it was likely a woman who first made the big discovery. We always talk of the man who discovered fire; now we should also give an equal place in our pantheon of scientists to the woman who discovered baby-making.